One year ago this weekend, former Eagles safety Brian Dawkins was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Minutes into his acceptance speech Dawkins talked about his battle with depression and suicidal ideations.
“I suffer from depression,” Dawkins said. “I went through it mightily my rookie year. I've suffered through suicidal thoughts. And I wasn't just suffering through suicidal thoughts, I was actually planning the way I would kill myself so my wife would get the money.”
It was a stunning revelation for the 16-year pro football player — and since that 22-minute speech, he hasn’t stopped talking about his experience.
“If I can have the average person understand that even THE Brian Dawkins goes through the exact same thing as you… we are actually the exact same when it comes to that,” Dawkins said. “There’s a guy I thought had everything he could want in life and he goes through the exact same thing, when he felt the same things I felt? Wow. That begins to floor people.”
On June 11, Dawkins was one of four elite athletes to attend and share their stories at the ‘Stay in the Game Network’ coalition on sport and mental health held at MLB Headquarters in New York.
The event focused on exploring sport’s role in promoting mental wellness and included representatives from the NFL, NBA, MLS, NHL, MLB, USA Swimming, World Boxing Council and Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
The sessions were sponsored by Beyond Sport, a UK-based organization which focuses on promoting, supporting, and celebrating the use of sport to address social issues in communities around the world.
Nick Keller, the founder and president of Beyond Sport, said now is the perfect time to expand the conversation around mental health and sport.
“I think we are at a particular time in society where people can have these open conversations,” Keller said. “And that we’re recognizing that performance isn’t just about winning medals. We have to care about the human being that is winning the medals.”
Jessica Howard, a former USA rhythmic gymnast, echoed Keller.
“It’s obvious it’s been a failure. A complete failure,” Howard said. “Especially with adolescents and amateur sports. They do not care about the athlete and mental health. They care about their bottom line, money, and medals.”
Howard, a three-time national champion and Hall of Fame rhythmic gymnast, is one of the athletes who wrote a victim impact statement in the case against Larry Nasser. She is now using her platform to ensure future generations of athletes do not have to suffer in silence.
“There’s no path for athletes at any level who have dealt with mental health issues to be guided to the right kind of treatment,” Howard said. “That is such a massive failure.”
‘Stay in the Game’ is hoping to help eliminate those failures. Attendees at the conference spent the day listening to personal stories as well as participating in break-out sessions designed to discuss progressive solutions to combat mental health issues in sports.
The conversation was candid.
Former NHL goalie Corey Hirsch recounted his mental health battle which almost took his life. Hirsch, who wrote a raw piece about his story for the Players' Tribune, wonders how much sooner he could have felt better if only the right protocols were in place.
“If I could have gotten help the next day, I wouldn’t have suffered for three years,” Hirsch said. “I wouldn’t have made an attempt on my own life. I would have had a longer NHL career. But why was that information held from me?”
Despite being desperate for help, Hirsch also admitted he wouldn’t have felt comfortable seeing a team-employed psychologist. Hirsch explained that he had two guys behind him gunning for playing time and the risk — even today — would be overwhelming.
“It’s very difficult to get a player to come out publicly or to a team,” said Hirsch. “I don’t think they will. They need to be able to know there are other avenues, other therapists that aren’t a team therapist.”
Dawkins agrees with Hirsch. He said that right or wrong, there is still a perception around athletes, especially male athletes, to suck up your feelings.
“You just push it aside, rub some dirt on it and you go forward,” Dawkins said.
Dawkins went on to say a player would not want the people determining roles, playing time, and money to know about an invisible injury.
Unfortunately, his concern is still very real.
Hirsch become visibly emotional while discussing the story of NHL goalie Robin Lehner. You can read Lehner’s full story on The Athletic, but here is the gist.
In March of 2018 Lehner contacted “the program” supported by the NHL and NHLPA after reaching rock bottom battling anxiety and addiction. He followed protocol. He received help. He was diagnosed with bipolar 1 manic phases. Lehner did everything right.
Needing a change of scenery, Lehner left Buffalo to become a free agent. One meeting with a potential team highlights the fears athletes have when it comes to discussing their mental health.
I was bombarded with questions about why I was a bad person or a bad teammate and I couldn’t say anything. I just took it for hours. I was told that I was a bad influence and I had less than one chance or I would be buried in the minors and that would end my career. Sitting and hearing from these people who don’t know me and think that I am a bad person was extremely hard. I was crushed.
In the end, only one team would hire Lehner — the New York Islanders. Lehner, now sober and having received treatment, was a finalist for the 2018-2019 Vezina Trophy given to the league’s best goaltender.
Hirsch told the crowd in New York, “His story is remarkable but it just goes to show you the stigma is still there. Nine teams down to one and the one team that did sign him got rewarded,” Hirsch said. “I’m hoping that is a catalyst for more players to come out and more teams to just say, 'You know what? You can win.' ”
CHANGING THE DIALOGUE
So the question becomes: How do sports leagues — both amateur and professional — begin to change?
Colleen Carr, the director of the National Alliance for Suicide Prevention, says step one happened in New York on June 11 when Beyond Sport brought people together who are already doing the work.
Step two — changing the culture — will take more time.
“It’s not enough for leadership to just talk about the resources available to the staff,” Carr said, “but for leadership to start telling their stories about when they struggled and what helped them.”
The athletes who spoke during the Stay in the Game coalition all agreed that education and resources are paramount. Each of them stressed simple steps like peer confidants and information on where and how to find a therapist could make a huge difference.
“Give me an option,” Dawkins said. “For me to have the availability. For me to understand. I have a list of dudes who could talk about what they went through and talked to someone about it.”
Howard added, “It doesn’t have to be deep, dark explanations. Just signs. What to look out for. Parents need to be aware. Kids need to be aware to a certain extent.”
The media has a responsibility as well.
“I think media plays a crucial role in highlighting how prevalent mental health and mental illness is,” Carr said, “and then also telling those stories of people who have struggled and then gone on to recover.”
The goal moving forward for Stay in the Game is to use the power of sports and the visibility of athletes to help bring awareness and change around mental health issues, not just among athletes but also the general population.
“We are committed at the action alliance to really changing the conversation about suicide,” Carr said, “to one that really promotes hope and recovery and survival through those dark moments. Leveraging the sport sector and those voices of sport and the culture of sport to do that and to increase connectedness has a power that I think will ripple beyond just the sports world into the larger community.”
To learn more about the Stay in the Game Network and join the coalition, contact Beyond Sport at: firstname.lastname@example.org
NBC Sports believes mental health is an important issue to explore not just in sports, but in society as well. Like it did in the areas of race or with gender equity, sport can lead the way toward creating an environment where people talk openly, and without shame, about mental health. Look for an announcement later this month from the NBC Sports Regional Network about a ground-breaking project where we are working toward those goals in this area.
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